He stared at me for a second, intense gaze never leaving my own, then he shook his head.
“I didn’t have a choice.” My voice thinned and I swallowed hard, dangerously close to tears. I didn’t, did I? No. I’d had to have at least some control over this. Some control over keeping my job.
“You could have told me the truth.” Voice flat, he seemed deflated. As if the anger had drained out of him.
“You wouldn’t have let me in,” I insisted. Would he? Even the possibility hadn’t occurred to me. Why would he?
He barked out a short laugh and dropped his eyes to his glass. “You don’t have any fucking idea what I’d do for you.”
My mouth dropped open, and before I could think of anything to say, he pushed up from the table and left.
Snow fell silently outside of my bedroom, adding to the ten-inch pile already on the balcony. I rolled over, pulling my down comforter closer around my neck, and met Charlie’s unblinking eyes.
I reached out and scratched his chin, and the bit of light leaking from the sliding glass doors reflected off of his black fur. “Think I messed up big time, buddy.”
Charlie yawned and his eyes closed. I sat up and glanced at the clock. One fifteen. Great. The way I was going, I’d be up the rest of the night.
Mason’s words reverberated through my mind, and despite my best efforts to sleep, my brain insisted on examining each and every potential meaning behind them. And for once, I wished for the familiarity of my mother’s voice in my head, instead of the foreignness of his voice and intent.
You don’t have any fucking idea what I’d do for you.
What the hell was that supposed to mean? If he cared about me, why couldn’t he just say it? Why had he called our kiss a mistake, and why had he avoided me ever since? The words seemed to mean that he cared about me. A lot. But that was tough to wrap my mind around. And I was scared to think about it too much. Scared to hope. What if I was wrong? What if he meant something else entirely by those words, something more akin to the loyalty shared by cops, not the caring shared by lovers. I couldn’t take the chance. If my own family couldn’t—no, I wasn’t going there. Sure, he’d kissed me. But only once. A year ago.
Oh there’d been looks before that. Times when I would feel his gaze burning into me. But when I’d turn to look at him, his eyes would be elsewhere. I’d convinced myself that I’d imagined his interest. And we had talked, but it had been just friendly chatting. Granted, I hadn’t noticed Mason talking to others in such an easy manner, but I’d always figured it was because—unlike most of the tough macho cops I worked with—I was quiet, and maybe easier to talk to. I’d thought that simple friendliness was all it was.
Until that night.
Two days before Christmas. I’d gone outside to get a breather from the mostly oh-dub crowd at the party. Snow had covered the ground, so similar to what the outside looked like right now. His gaze had been hot against my back. I’d whipped my head around to stare at him. His eyes had reflected the moonlight that bounced up off the snow in a way only a lycan’s could and he’d closed the gap between us without a word.
Then he had kissed me.
I’d lost a bit of myself in that kiss. Maybe Mason had too.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax, firmly banishing thoughts of him from my mind. My hand slid down Charlie’s fur, and the cat leaned against me. I could feel vampiric energy faintly, like seeing a flash in my peripheral vision. For a moment, I thought I’d fallen into a dream. But as Charlie purred loudly my eyes flew open.
A soft scratching sound touched my ears faintly. My stomach dropped. Someone picking the lock?
I hadn’t dreamed the vampiric energy; it was still there, on the edge of my ability to feel it. The slightest smell of burnt coffee, and shadows lurking just beyond where I could see them. If I stayed put a few more seconds, let them get closer, I might be able to determine who the vampire was. If it was one I’d met before. But if whoever was scratching at my lock got through my door, once they got in they’d be too fast for me to escape. I wouldn’t have enough time to get away.
And like a prize idiot, I’d left my gun downstairs in my car.
Charlie jumped off the bed and pattered down the hall. I opened my mouth to hiss at him to come back, but snapped it shut before a sound could escape.
A vampire would hear such a sound. Maybe. I couldn’t chance it. Charlie wasn’t one to obey orders regardless. And if I pursued him, I would undoubtedly be caught. Charlie would probably be fine. My intruder wouldn’t be interested in a pet. I would not be so lucky.
Blinking back tears at the thought of them hurting Charlie, I gave the room one last desperate glance before I opened the sliding glass door that led to my balcony.
Stay hidden, I told the cat silently.
The cold air bit into my skin, which was protected only by a T-shirt and cotton shorts. The door slid quietly behind me, and I heard the click of my front door opening a split second before the sliding glass moved into place.
The first two feet of the balcony from the house were free of most of the snow piling the last foot or so, protected by a short awning in the roof. Wincing, I walked barefoot into the crisply-edged snow and stepped over the balcony. The edge was only a couple of inches between the banister and the gaping darkness to my backyard below. My toes were on fire, and I knew I’d have only minutes before they would numb. I held onto the top of the balcony with one hand and then bent down and gripped the bottom of the railing with the other. I slid my hand from the top down to grip the railing next to my other hand.
Freezing air rushed into my lungs when I took a deep breath. Was the vampire getting closer? I didn’t dare drop my concentration from what I was doing to feel out with my senses. Had he or she seen me yet? I didn’t risk a glance at the sliding glass door. Instead, I slid one foot, then the next off the railing, wincing as the wood scraped at my legs and arms. Dangling, I knew I was likely to hurt myself—even dropping from only the second story while already hanging several feet closer to the ground. But I didn’t have a choice.
I released the railing and fire bit at my inner arms as they slid against the wood. I hit the ground, crunching the snow beneath my feet. Shock rushed up through my ankles and knees. Then I slid, my feet rushed out from under me and I fell to my butt with a whump.
Coldness surrounded me. Panic coursed through me. Had I cried out when I hit the ground? I thought I might have. The walls in my townhouse were thick, and with the doors shut and the noise of a train passing, I hoped the vampire hadn’t heard me.
I forced myself up, thankful that the bit of snow on the ground had at least cushioned me a little, and rushed to the fence. Nothing seemed broken, and while I could feel a slight ache from my ankle, the adrenaline running through me pushed it all to the back of my awareness.
The privacy fence cut into my hands when I pulled myself over it and dropped onto the street behind my home. Where to? My mind rebelled at offering any logical location to run to, it was as if I’d forgotten the layout of my own neighborhood.
I loped toward the main street running alongside my subdivision and tried to breathe. My brain finally slowed enough for me to think. A neighbor’s house wouldn’t work. That would just put them in danger. Somewhere public and well lit would be better. The 7-11 right down the street was open twenty-four hours. I’d head there.
Somewhere along the quarter mile between me and the convenience store, my aches started to press their way through the adrenaline. My right ankle was the worst. It pulsed painfully with every heartbeat. And the cold made my whole body shiver and shake, slowing my progress.
But I couldn’t feel a vampire behind me. And I clung to that knowledge, and the bit of hope it offered. Finally, after what felt like hours—but was probably only minutes later—I found myself blinking at the bright lights of the 7-11. My haven. I trotted up to the front doors and shoved them open.
A clerk stared at me, jaw dropping. Young, she couldn’t have been far out of high school. What was she doing working the graveyard shift alone?
“Lock the front door,” I told her. When she didn’t move, I yelled, “I’m a cop. Lock that door immediately. We could both be in danger. Where’s your phone?”
My words were stilted, I couldn’t seem to talk right through the cold, but the authority in my tone, or maybe the word cop, pulled her out of her shock. She grabbed a cordless phone out from under the counter and handed it to me. Then the girl shuffled to the front door, hands shakily searching through a key ring while I dialed 911.
I told the operator my name and badge number, and that I needed backup at the store. Then I told her we might be dealing with a dangerous vampire and hung up the phone before she could ask more questions.
I called Mason next, and the gravelly tone of his voice made me wonder if he’d had trouble sleeping too, before I could pull my mind back to why I was calling.
“Mason, it’s me.”
“Astrid. Do you know what time it is?” Anger coated his tone, and I swallowed my guilt.
“Look,” I said before he could hang up on me. “A vamp broke into my townhouse tonight. I got out, but I’d appreciate it if you’d come down here.” To my horror, I realized that my voice was higher pitched than normal, and wispy thin, on the edge of breaking. I couldn’t cry right now. I had to be strong. For the clerk who still watched me with wide eyes, at least.
“Where are you?” he asked, all trace of sleepiness gone from his tone.
I told him, and then I clung to the phone. He didn’t hang up, though he put the phone down for a few seconds to toss a coat on. I heard his SUV fire up and I watched the door warily.
The clerk wrapped a small, fuzzy blanket around my shoulders. It still had a price tag clinging to it. Mason and I didn’t say much on the phone. Just reassured each other we were still there. Finally, red and blue flashed through the windows, and relief flooded me. I blinked back tears and tried to ignore the burning in my throat, as my brothers in blue came to my rescue.